UCI Authors in Residence Speak on their “Marvelous Machines”

UCI hosted two visiting authors last week in an event which questioned the role of technology in a changing world.    Tom Mullaney, associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford University and author of “The Chinese Typewriter,” and Rebecca  Tuhus-Dubrow, author of “Personal Stereo,” each spent years researching a piece of technology — the Chinese version of the typewriter and the Walkman, respectively — in preparation for their novels.

At the start of his research for “The Chinese Typewriter,” Mullaney knew nothing of the machine he was supposedly writing about.

“I’d never seen one of these machines. I couldn’t even imagine what it would look like,” he said.

Ten years and 12 countries later, the final product of his research, “The Chinese Typewriter,” is the chronicle of China’s struggle to keep its character-based writing system relevant in an increasingly technological world where machines are being tailored to Western alphabet systems.

Mullaney explained how China was able to adapt the typewriter — a seemingly unchangeable, non-ductile hunk of metal — into something that fit their “home writing system.”

“One technology to the next, there was always a  contrast because technology is built with an understanding of what it should look like and how it should be, but the Chinese reimagined all their technology. It was China’s finger to the world,” Mullaney said.

China’s frantic creation of a typewriter that could suit their alphabet carried with it the country’s hopes, as well as its fears in a rapidly changing technological environment.

Tuhus-Dubrow’s book “Personal Stereo,”   also echoes concerns about a rapidly evolving technological world.

“The Walkman itself was a sign of technological change, both enchanting and terrifying, because it changed the concept of public space,” Tuhus-Dubrow said. “With the Walkman, for the first time,  you  just had to put on your headphones and you could ignore other people, become immersed in music in way that, to the rest of the world at that time, was disconcerting. But today, they’re considered crude and innocent.”

According to Dubrow, the Walkman was part of an ever-morphing technological environment. She referenced the iPod’s recent discontinuation in favor of music installed on phones.

Tuhus-Dubrow still uses a Walkman to listen to music, arguing that music apps have caused a certain loss of intimacy because of the distractions of the phone’s other capabilities.

Both authors agreed that the value of deeply studying objects such as theirs is the ability to understand something “in its own moment and the contingent ways that something moves forward,” according to Tuhus-Dubrow.  “They don’t just replace, they morph and influence each other.”

Moderating the event was UCI historian and Chancellor’s Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, with comments by UCI anthropology professor Tom Boellstorff and freelance writer, Alexandra Pechman.

 The event was sponsored by UCI Humanities in collaboration with Newkirk Center for Science & Society, with support from the History Department, Humanities Commons, the US-China Long Institute, and the UCI Literary Journalism Program.